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Temporary tags: Reasonable suspicion of crime necessary for traffic stop

Updated: Dec 30, 2022

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in Clinton v. Garrett, 21-2763, 2022 WL 4362171, at *5 (8th Cir. Sept. 21, 2022), once again made it clear that police officers who undertake a traffic stop of a driver must have articulable and reasonable suspicion that the motorist is involved in a crime. In Clinton, the Court was dealing with a traffic stop of a driver for a suspected temporary-tag violation, stating that the stop must be based upon “articulable and reasonable suspicion that a motorist is unlicensed or that an automobile is not registered.” The evidence was clear, however, that the officer made the stop of the plaintiff not because of a mistaken, affirmative belief that the temporary tag was blank or fraudulent but because the officer “couldn’t see” whether it was legal. In other words, the stop was to verify the validity of the tags not because the officer believed them expired. As such the detaining and subsequent arrest of the driver for possession of a controlled substance was unconstitutional under the fourth amendment. Because the Appeals Court found that the officers had violated Clinton’s “clearly established rights,” the Court upheld the district court’s conclusion that they were not entitled to qualified immunity. “By the clearly established law, this court ‘cannot sanction stops justified only by the generalized and ever-present possibility that interrogation and inspection may reveal that any given motorist has committed some crime.’” Clinton v. Garrett, 21-2763, 2022 WL 4362171, at *7, citing City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32, 44, 121 S. Ct. 447, 148 L.Ed.2d 333 (2000). Municipal Police Departments should remind all officers that, to justify a stop, they must be able articulate a specific crime for which they have reasonable suspicion. The elements of reasonable suspicion include facts and circumstances (1) that would lead a reasonable police officer to believe that criminal activity is about to take place, is currently taking place, or has taken place and (2) that connect the person under suspicion with the suspected criminal activity.

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